ASSISI, Italy (VN) – Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) believes his surge into the maglia rosa is more than just confirmation that he is king of the hilltop finales.
The pint-sized “Purito” is convinced more than ever he can win the Giro d’Italia, and says that he intends to fight all the way to Milan to try to follow in the shoes of Miguel Indurain and Alberto Contador as the only Spaniards who have won the corsa rosa.
“The objective is to win the Giro,” Rodríguez said confidently Wednesday morning in Assisi. “I know I can climb well and it will be difficult for the others to drop me. I come to this Giro in the best condition of my career. We are here to win.”
Katusha sport director Valerio Piva, at least publicly, is not quite as confident as his star rider and realizes the real Giro is only beginning.
“Of course, we are very happy to have the pink jersey, but the hardest part of the Giro is still to come,” Piva told VeloNews. “We have a strong team here and we are going to support him. We are not saying anything is won yet. Far from that, the Giro is just starting. The hardest stages are all still to come.”
Piva expressed satisfaction that Rodríguez made it through the first half of the Giro in excellent position, thanks in large part to the team’s surprising second-place finish in the stage 4 team time trial. Piva said the squad was expecting a good ride, but admitted that stopping the clock just five seconds slower than Garmin-Barracuda was a shock.
“I brought a team here with riders for the team time trial. Brutt, Ignatyev, Smukulis and Kuschynski are all powerful riders to pull him on the flats and we had Vicioso and Moreno for the climb,” Piva said. “We have worked on the bikes and with Purito on his time trial, but to finish second to Garmin by just five seconds was a surprise. A good one!”
That set up Rodríguez to take aim at Ryder Hesjedal’s pink jersey and Piva said the team rode perfectly Tuesday to set him up for the final steep charge up Assisi. Now comes the hard part.
“We might not want to keep the jersey all the way to Cervinia (Saturday). Thursday’s stage is very hard along the coast and if there is a break that goes away, we might let the jersey go with it,” Piva said. “We do not want to stress the team too much. We want the team to be at its best in the final week.”
Rodríguez says this year is different and that he won’t have one of his infamous late-race collapses that have so far handicapped his chances of winning a grand tour. He’s ridden into the top 10 in five grand tours over the past four seasons, but inevitably crumpled in the high mountains or in the individual time trial every time.
The rivals weigh in
Other teams are not so sure Rodríguez is the man to beat. Guiseppe Martinelli, the veteran Italian director who has led four different riders into the maglia rosa, says Rodríguez is not at the top of his favorites list.
“Right now, I think Purito has shown he is strong, but I think that Basso and Scarponi are the men to beat,” Martinelli told VeloNews. “I think that Saturday will be the first real test. It’s the first authentic mountaintop finale and it’s a long, hard stage. That’s when we will see who is truly in fighting shape to challenge for the maglia rosa. If Purito can ride into the final week in the pink jersey, then it will be another story, but I expect others to climb better.”
Garmin-Barracuda sport director Bingen Fernández suggests that having Rodríguez take over the pink jersey thanks to time bonuses was not such a bad thing for his team’s interests.
Garmin held the pink jersey for five days – three with Hesjedal and two with Ramunas Navardauskas – and Fernández said having Katusha to control the pace on the coming days heading into the Alps will give the squad a breather ahead of the decisive climbing stages in the final week.
“Without the bonuses, Ryder would still be in pink. It’s not like they took it away from us. Ryder is strong and Purito is a specialist on finishes like Assisi, so it was expected,” Fernández told VeloNews. “Everyone is waiting to see how Purito will handle the longer climbs. We still have Ryder in good position in the GC and we are still going to support him all the way to Milan. Ryder is steadier than Purito on the longer, steeper climbs. Perhaps that’s to our advantage to not have the jersey now.”
Rodríguez took 28 seconds on Hesjedal in bonuses in two uphill finales this week, but he will not have that advantage moving into the final week. Giro organizers have removed finish-line bonuses of 20, 12 and 8 seconds to the top three in five decisive mountain stages in the closing week.
Even if Rodríguez can keep pace to the top of the Stelvio on the Giro’s penultimate stage, there’s still the unfinished business of the final-stage time trial in Milan.
Purito’s ticking time trial bomb
Time trials have been Rodríguez’s Achilles heel in his quest for a grand tour, with his infamous implosion during the 2010 Vuelta a España, when he lost six minutes and the red leader’s jersey to eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali on a flat, windy 40km power course in the final week.
Piva, however, is all but sure if Rodríguez is in pink atop the Stelvio that the Giro is won.
“Purito has improved a lot in the time trial,” Piva said. “We have been working on his bike, his position, getting him more comfortable in time trials. He likes to be very calm and prepared before the time trials.”
Rodríguez has ridden two major time trials so far this season. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he stopped the clock 52 seconds slower than TT specialist Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), but only five seconds slower than Giro archrival Roman Kreuziger (Astana). In that short, power course of 9.3km, Rodríguez had just come off winning an uphill stage to Offida and was not riding for GC.
At the Vuelta al País Vasco in April, Rodríguez lost 22 seconds to stage winner and overall champ Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) on a hilly, 18.9km course, but only lost 16 seconds to reigning world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
It is results like that that give Piva confidence if Rodríguez is still in pink riding into Milan when the Giro ends on May 27.
“There have been times in the past when he has lost a lot, but I do believe he will not lose so much time against riders like Basso and Scarponi in Milan. There will not be a big TT specialist in the GC hunt, no one like Menchov or Contador, who can take minutes,” Piva said. “If he has pink into Milan, it would have to take a disaster to lose the Giro then.”
Stranger things have happened during Rodríguez’s long journey into the pink jersey. He’s hoping those one-off bad days, when all is lost, are firmly in the rear-view mirror. If they are, it could be very tricky to wrestle away the maglia rosa.